William Bottrell

“The Old Celt”

William Bottrell first crops up on the podcast in the three part epic “The Enchanter of Pengersick.”

Now this story is found first in the work of Robert Hunt, a bit of a polymath: a “British mineralogist, antiquarian, amateur poet, and early pioneer of photography” as Wikipedia says. 

Hunt’s 1865 Popular Romances of the West of England Or The drolls, traditions, and superstitions of Old Cornwall, (because people couldn’t decide on the titles for books back then) is a sprawling work containing a great many folkstories and many other snippets of folklore aside.

Many of these stories will likely make their way onto the podcast and Hunt will be very much due his own page on this website in due course.

However while the story of the Enchanter first crops up in this book, it is a much truncated version of the lengthy story I told. Now had it not been for the popularity of the book there the Enchanter of Pengersick story might have remained.

Podcast episodes featuring Bottrell
Tales of Britain and Ireland
Tales of Britain and Ireland

A storytelling and folklore podcast.

Telling some of the famous and not so famous British and Irish myths, legends and folktales, in no particular order.

Coming direct from South Yorkshire it is currently regularish, and will feature all of the above and whatever other miscellaneous snippets take my fancy.

Presented by Graeme. Website at http://www.TalesofBritainandIreland.com

23. The Enchanter of Pengersick, Part 2, Plots and Schemes
byTales of Britain and Ireland.
23. The Enchanter of Pengersick, Part 2, Plots and Schemes
24: The Enchanter of Pengersick Part 3, feat: an Enchanter

Traditions and Hearthside Stories

However Hunt’s source for the story was our friend William Bottrell (Billy B?). Seeing the success of Popular Romances, the obvious public appetite for them, Bottrell teamed up with The Cornish Telegraph to write his own versions of the stories, and from this collaboration sprung Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall (scandalously having but the one title!) in 1870 and a second volume in 1873.

It’s in the second volume we find the much extended and enriched version of the enchanter of Pengersick. Bottrell would publish one more work in his lifetime: Stories and Folk-Lore of West Cornwall, in 1880 but sadly this was not the full scale intended as Bottrell had suffered a stroke that left him unable to complete it, and a year later he was dead.

And what incredibly lengthy and detailed stories they are. It is perhaps a somewhat crass comparison but it serves the point to say that Hunt’s version of the Enchanter of Pengersick is some 2500 words William Bottrell’s is nearly 8000 (full disclosure: the podcast version clocks in at somewhere around 20,000).

Bottrell expands considerably on stories, adding in piles of extemporanea, wandering off into considerably asides or lengthy descriptive passages that one could say adds little to the meat of the story but suffuses it with a great sense of atmosphere, a telling rich in detail, observation and feeling, all building to create a fuller bodied resplendent story. 

In that way he is very much a man after my own heart, and of all the folklore collectors I have read his is perhaps the closest to the style of the podcast.

It should go without saying that much of this flourish, and so the bulk of the word in his works, are Bottrell’s own and so the tales we have that only come from him owe a great deal to his expansive stylings.

While certainly this seems to categorise Bottrell’s work as a very literary approach to story telling it is also quite possible to view this as something else entirely: as a continuation with a long tradition of Oral storytelling from Cornwall, known as Droll Telling.

WHEN the ancient family of Noy flourished in Buryan there was a large tract of unenclosed common, belonging to the farms of Pendrea, Selena, and Tresidder, which extended from Cotnewilly to Baranhual, and branched off in other directions. Great part of this ground was swampy and produced a rank growth of rushes, water-flags, and coarse herbage. Many acres were gay in summer with cotton-grass, bog-beans, cucco-flowers, and other plants usually found in such soil. In some places were dry rocky banks overgrown with sloe-trees, moor-withey, furze, and brambles; these patches being surrounded by a broad extent of quaking bog or muddy soil appeared like islands in a marsh. There were also many springs, rivulets, and pools, that seldom froze, much frequented by wildfowl in winter. Great part of this moorland was then impassable; horse-tracks leading to Baranhual, Selena, and other farms, passed over the dryest places, and, were continued by rough causeways through swamps;—they were very bad roads at all seasons.”
– A pleasing example of Bottrell’s florid, detailed style from his story “The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor”

Bottrell’s life

Of Bottrell’s biography I have but a few scant details. I am indebted to George Pritchard for this article: William Bottrell his life and stories from which this information is chiefly drawn.

Bottrell was a Cornish native born in St. Levan and it is there that he is buried, following his death in 1881. 

It seems that he grew up on a large farm, with his father a wealthy farmer, and Bottrell was pretty well educated at the local grammar school. For much of the first few decades of his adult life he lived abroad – in Spain, in Canada, and eventually marrying and moving all the way to Australia.

St Levan churchyard where Bottrell is buried. Jim Champion CC BY-SA 3.0

Not much is generally of his life throughout this substantive part of it but it seems very varied: at one point he was the overseer of a Canadian timbermill, and at another he collected folktales in the Basque country.

While the timeline is unclear at some stage his wife died and in his late 40s he moved back to Cornwall permanently.

From there he told many of his stories to Robert Hunt, who then went on to publish them. While it’s clear that Bottrell owes his fame now to his association with Hunt, a number of sources seem to indicate that Hunt, while crediting Bottrell and others in the text, took all the financial rewards of the project all for himself, and may not have been entirely honest about his intentions, but I can’t find any hard evidence of this.

And if it is true? Well, what a Hunt.

It was after this that Bottrell published his own stories in the local newspaper, and then went on to compile into the books he was to become known for. He certainly seems to have achieved no small renown in the last decade of his life because of this, even if still being of relatively local fame compared to some of the folklorists on this podcast.

But my absolute favourite detail about Bottrell, which endears me to him is the detail given in the brief description of his life before his last (posthumous) publication:

He had a black cat called ‘Spriggans’ and a cow and pony. These animals would all follow him down the almost perpendicular cliff, over a goats path, to the spring which was their water supply and no accidents happened to them.

Bottrell and Cornwall

“Legends that once were told or sung,
in many a smoky fireside nook”

Longfellow (Quoted at the start of Volume II of Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall)

Bottrell’s story telling is very tied up with the county of Cornwall. Though he sourced many of his stories from the West of Cornwall, in Penwyth the action takes place across the whole county.

The idea of Cornwall is rather more than just a simply county, boundaries marked purely as an efficient administrative division for local government. Now while that is true, to some extent or another, of a lot of counties in England Cornwall has a markedly stronger historical identity than most other counties, to the extent that Cornwall is often described as being its own nation.

The trappings of nationhood can be found most particularly in the long survival of the Cornish language, a Brittonic celtic language, similar to Welsh and even more so to Breton. This was widely used up to the 1500s until declining to nothing by the end of the 18th century, but seeing a sustained revival in the late 20th and early 21st century. 

Typical Cornish sight – from Bottrell’s book

For a long time Cornwall has been associated with a great many myths and legends: and while this podcast does show that something of the sort is true right across the British Isles in the case of the cornwall old stories do seem to come thick and fast: Giants, piskies, spriggans mermaids, witches and the devil all loom large, not just in the works of people like Hunt and Bottrell but as part of a much wider and older Cornish tradition.

Bottrell gives himself the appellation, “An Old Celt” in the introduction to Hearthside Traditions placing himself firmly in a celtic tradition.

The conception of Celticness has, since the 19th century, been much associated with both old pre-christian magics and with the more ancient and miraculous-tending of the Christian Saints, and as a Cetlic nation Cornwall is imbued with much of this imagery. St Nectan and St. Piran both loom large in the Cornish imagination.  But perhaps above all else on the mythology front Cornwall has a long association with King Arthur and Merlin with the obvious physical centre of this being Tintagel Castle.

All of this is a very lengthy way of saying that Cornwall has a landscape and people much imbued with story, and even a particular style of story telling associated with it: “Droll” telling.

Tintagel Castle – long associated with Arthur and Merlin, Bob Linsdell

Droll telling

In some ways a Droll could be considered a regional word for oral non verse story telling, which was naturally much more common everywhere before the rise of the great variety of modern medias. 

But it’s also taken on a more specific, particular type of a story, and the “Droll Teller” describes a particular type of role in pre-modern Cornish society.

A Droll is a particularly lengthy, meandering story which changes, and usually expands with each telling.

Bottrell himself his own words are perhaps best to describe the Droll:

“their chief resource for passing the eventide, and other times of rest, was the relation of traditional stories or, as they say “drolling away the time” in public-house or chimney-corner; many old legends have thus been handed down and kept alive. No doubt the adventures in these wild tales are often embellished by the droll-teller’s fanciful invention.”

When talking about a tale told to him of a giant he describes the Droll Teller’s process so:

“It generally took him three of four winter’s evenings to get through with the droll, because he would enter into very minute details, and indulge himself in glowing descriptions of the tin and other treasures found in the giant’s castle; taking care, at the same time, to give the spoken parts literally as he had heard them from his ancestors.”

And honestly I’ve never felt more seen.

Now while anyone could tell a Droll professional Droll Teller’s existed – people would go from house to house securing room and board and paying with stories, and at other times providing entertainment for many more people at larger occasions.

There was other attractions as well: music and singing, with a lot of the stories told in verse.

And it’s really worth noting that while it’s tempting to romanticise people doing this as only tellers of stories they would likely also report on news and current events – in fact this was likely a primary part of their social function in a time when news was not so easy coming as it is today, and with large parts of the population being illiterate

Bottrell mentions one of these travelling Droll Tellers by name: Uncle Anthony James:

“his descriptions of outlandish people and places were just as much fashioned after his own imagination, as were the embellishments of the legends he related, and the airs he composed for many old ballads which he and his boy sing to the melody of the old droll-teller’s crowd”

By the time Bottrell was writing in 1870 it seems that this was already a much diminished art and the old Anthony James was one of the very last of these Droll Tellers to till be practising.

And so it seems fitting that Bottrell would go to save the stories that might have otherwise disappeared but to do so in the self-same manner as the Droll Tellers, by embellishing upon them.

From Drolls to literature

In many ways Bottrell simply was a Droll Teller – working in a different medium.

Though in the act of setting these tales down in print allowing easy reproduction of perfect facsimiles he crystalised a version, his version of the tales – in stark contrast to the lively changeable nature of the tales he celebrated, and how he had adapted them.

Much in the manner of a butterfly collector he pinned these stories down to the page, preserving them so we can still marvel at them today, but also drawing the life and vitality from them in order to do so. 

So in conclusion when I stray from the path of the story on this podcast, particularly one of Bottrell’s, I hope that I am doing so much in the spirit of the Droll Tellers, and that for this William Bottrell might approve. (Though I’ll leave the poetry and song to others better fitted to such)

It is notable that in preserving these stories Hunt, Bottrell and a few others were instrumental in us having them now. This is not to claim antiquity for them: it’s often very difficult to judge exactly when a story in Botrell’s collection began – if it’s hundreds of years old or if it was made up the day before he was told it. But regardless these few works are drawn up now by pretty much all modern writers, story tellers, podcasters and more who tell the stories of Cornwall. It is through these works that we have an insight into these old stories at all, and it is inevitably that a great many others were lost to us because they were not recorded at the point where the oral tradition was dying out.

It seems in some ways odd and, perhaps even, not quite proper that these Cornish, drolls, created in an iterative communal process by huge numbers of story tellers over many years are known now attached to the names of but a few men in the nineteenth century, but that is how things stand.

While we should be very mindful of those many contributions to the making of the stories it’s also quite realistic to recognise that as he recorded them modern Cornish folklore owes a great debt to Bottrell and those of his ilk.

Episode pages featuring Bottrell

Selected Sources

Works by Bottrell

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